Phyllis Weliver, ‘Oscar Wilde, Music, and the “Opium-Tainted Cigarette”: Disinterested Dandies and Critical Play’

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde. Photograph by Napoleon Sarony. 1882. Library of Congress.

In her recent article in JVC 15.3, Phyllis Weliver reveals how the dandy’s languorous posture, aesthetic writing style, opium smoking, and musical repertoire interact in Oscar Wilde’s literature and criticism. Examining The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as ‘The Critic as Artist’ and The Importance of Being Earnest draws into focus how each of Wilde’s works is organized to create complicated relationships among this grouping, all of which belong to dandyish characters.

The essay begins with a discussion of the moment when we first meet Dorian Gray in Wilde’s only novel.  Although Dorian only silently flips the pages of Robert Schumann’s Waldszenen, Op. 82, we find the languorous attitudes of many of Wilde’s dandies in the sounds and sentiments of this group of nine piano pieces, as well as in Dorian’s manner; he finds flipping pages, desiring to play, and swinging on the stool more agreeable than what he perceives as the work of sitting still for the painter, Basil Hallward.

In order to contextualize and make clear Wilde’s innovations, the essay then ranges widely through references to composers (Berlioz, Chopin, Wagner, Debussy), other opium-inspired fiction (Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood), and the literary-critical work of Matthew Arnold. Finally, even though it is the last thing that he wants to be, the dandy is shown to be an imperial subject. The dandy’s consumption of opium, together with the particular musical repertoires that he enjoys, and his posture of Indian ‘disinterestedness’, shows that he is a figure whose playful idleness remains inextricably linked with Empire and the East.

Schumann’s Waldszenen, Op. 82

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